Music teaches what school books don’t.
Many people visiting the July 4-7 re-enactment that celebrated Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary likely learned about the Civil War in far-off classrooms. Perhaps a teacher could dedicate a week to skimming the war’s storm-tossed surface, and her students learned the requisite names like Sumter and Shiloh and Antietam and Appomattox.
Beyond that, those students — now adults wandering through the Confederate and Union camps spread along the opposing ridges separated by Table Rock Road — probably could not tell the difference between a percussion cap, Cumberland Gap, and the Dutch Gap Canal. Add the kids and grandkids tagging along in the 90-degree Gettysburg heat, and too many visitors knew too little about America’s bloodiest conflict.
But when a Union brass band rehearsed near the Federal cavalry lines, Boy Scout Venture Crew 1861 delivered an outstanding fife-and-drum performance near the Upper Grandstand, and that outstanding Confederate fife-and-drum band musically escorted a few hundred Confederate soldiers marching uphill to their camps after an evening’s battle, visitors knew the music.
They might not know President Jefferson Davis from Gen. Jeff Davis, but they knew the music belonged to the Civil War.
They could identify “Dixie,” “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and other period music.
That’s because music teaches what books can’t.
During the Civil War centennial, that ancient historical event that took place only 50 years ago, I learned about the war by reading anything by Bruce Catton, “The Golden Book of the Civil War,” and every war-related American Heritage book that Mom could buy. But she also bought the record featuring Civil War music performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and from that record I learned the songs by rote, by verse, by listening repeatedly until I drove my siblings nuts.
The music taught me about:
• A prisoner’s loneliness (“in the prison cell I sit” from “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys Are Marching”);
• The terrible losses in battle (“they swept us off a hundred men or more,” from “Tramp, Tramp, etc.”);
• Separation, both temporal and eternal (“Aura Lee”);
• Southern pride (“we are a band of brothers” from “The Bonnie Blue Flag”);
• Northern determination (“we will rally ’round the flag, boys” from “The Battle Cry of Freedom”);
• A God-blessed America (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”).
Those books read and re-read until they became dog-eared 50 years ago could never convey what music taught me about the Civil War. So many songs from that period swept into American lore; even the schoolchildren who learn so little about the war today have heard “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie,” and the children associate such songs with something incredible that happened in American history.
During its four-day run, the Gettysburg 150th celebration on Table Rock Road in Gettysburg provided many opportunities for visitors to hear different bands and music groups, including the vaunted 2nd South Carolina String Band. An example of that band’s excellent music, albeit filmed at Cedar Creek in 2011, can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__kQX12S9YI.
Almost every large-scale Civil War re-enactment features period music. Gettysburg certainly offered more than the typical number of excellent bands.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.